LOUISVILLE — Art Sherman looked dazed, perhaps still a bit uncertain that fate had handed him such a magnificent gift after six decades of devotion to racehorses.
A few feet away, Steve Coburn’s voice caught with emotion as he spoke of those who didn’t believe. Perry Martin wiped tears from his eyes, hugging a relative who shouted: “Oh my God, what a ride! Just like you called it!”
For these men, California Chrome had long been the horse of dreams. And against the classic backdrop of Churchill Downs, the rest of the world finally caught up to their vision.
Defying the skepticism of many experienced horsemen, this West Coast colt of modest lineage charged to victory as the favorite in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.
“He gave me the biggest thrill of my life,” said Sherman, who at 77 became the oldest trainer to win the Derby. “At this stage of my life, what else could I want?”
Coburn, who co-owns California Chrome with Martin, had an answer. “I said our horse would win the Kentucky Derby, and when he wins, I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown,” he said. “I told people, I said this colt will go down in history because he’s going to be the first California-bred [horse] to win the Triple Crown.”
If California Chrome does manage to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, he would become the first to pull it off since Affirmed in 1978.
Rival trainers said they wouldn’t doubt it after what they saw Saturday. “I was very, very wrong,” said Dale Romans, who saddled Medal Count in the Derby and believed California Chrome had no chance. “We might have just seen a super horse and a super trainer. You don’t fake your way to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby.”
Starting from the No. 6 post, California Chrome ran just off the lead under jockey Victor Espinoza, then pulled away easily at the top of the stretch to win by 13 / 4 lengths.
It was exactly the race Sherman had envisioned all week. “I tell you, he rode him picture-perfect,” the trainer said of Espinoza, who won his second Kentucky Derby. (His first came aboard War Emblem in 2002.)
“This was a typical race for him,” Espinoza said, a scary thought for the rest of the 3-year-olds on the planet.
With his win before a crowd of 164,906, the second largest in Kentucky Derby history, California Chrome took home $1.418 million of a $2.178 million total purse.
At 5-2 odds, the favorite paid $7 on a $2 bet to win, $5.60 to place and $4.20 to show. Commanding Curve, a 38-1 underdog, finished second ($31.80, $15.40). Danza, a 9-1 third choice, ran third ($6).
All winter and spring, as his top 3-year-old rivals succumbed to injuries or delivered stagnant performances, California Chrome kept getting better.
The Kentucky Derby is known for confounding expectations with its packed fields and unevenly tested competitors. But California Chrome was exactly the horse at Churchill he had been in winning the Santa Anita Derby a month earlier.
The chestnut colt was the fastest horse coming in and perhaps the best story.
His owners, Coburn and Martin, are far from old-timey racing royalty. They’re middle-class people who met when they partnered to buy California Chrome’s mother, Maryland-bred Love the Chase, for $8,000. They spent another $2,500 to pair her with an undistinguished stallion named Lucky Pulpit. Only a wild optimist could have seen the potential magic in the mix.
But Coburn said he dreamed of a special, chestnut horse just three weeks before Love the Chase gave birth to her first foal: California Chrome.
He and Martin loved the curious, personable colt and placed him under Sherman’s care, figuring the modest, old-school trainer would pay the attention he needed.
Sherman had been a steady winner for years without ever getting his hands on a Triple Crown talent. California Chrome brought him back to Churchill Downs for the first time in 59 years; Sherman’s last visit was as an 18-yeard-old stable hand for 1955 champion Swaps.
He visited Swaps’s grave at the Kentucky Derby Museum on Thursday and asked the superhorse of his youth for a little help with his superhorse of today. “I said a little prayer, and it came true,” Sherman recalled. “I said I hope he’s another Swaps.”
As California Chrome continued to exceed expectations with dominant wins in his prep races, Coburn and Martin received potentially life-changing purchase offers, the greatest a $6 million bid for 51 percent of the horse. They said no to the well-moneyed suitors.
This was their story to see through. And Sherman’s.
California Chrome reached Churchill Downs as a clear favorite, yet veteran horsemen questioned his chances. They fixated on his unremarkable pedigree or on his never running outside California or on Sherman’s lack of experience on the big stage.
“Do you not believe this man can train a horse?” Coburn said, nodding to Sherman. “Because if you don’t, you need to have your head examined.”
Sherman, who spent 23 years as a jockey, felt he was riding just beside Espinoza over the last 70 yards. “Keep rolling there, big boy,” he recalled thinking.
The stage now heads to Maryland, another place where Sherman rode as a young man. He said he’ll probably keep California Chrome in Kentucky for about a week, then transport him to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore ahead of the May 17 Preakness.
He promised to be the same jovial, thankful man who charmed folks for the last week in Louisville. “I’m just the same old Art Sherman,” he said. “Except I won the Kentucky Derby.”
— Baltimore Sun